In “The Hierarchy of Humanities Schadenfreude: Scoffing at academic job-market losers comes from some unexpected places” Rebecca Schuman posits some of the reasons why other academics look down on humanities professors, and why humanities professors look down on the adjuncts. I have some theories of my own:
* The simple answer is stated in Schuman’s second paragraph: “Allow me to explain supply and demand to you.” Teaching 18 – 22-year-old undergrads is just not that hard and a lot of people can do it. Grad school in the humanities is more time-consuming than hard. There is in fact a lot of supply and limited demand. The simple answers are often correct.
* Regarding tenured professors looking down on adjuncts, academia is not solely a lottery (though it has some lottery-like elements); people who write in a disciplined, perhaps even demonic, way tend to succeed, at least for some value of “success.” Tenure-track gigs in rural Wisconsin or Florida are much easier to be had than TT gigs in New York and Chicago.
* Academia is ridiculously hierarchical and status-oriented, even if its status ladder is different than the mainstream American status ladder. It’s also, interestingly, very transparent. People at the very top of any ladder rarely have a need to piss on those lower than themselves, but the nervous middle classes often piss downwards to make themselves feel better. Humanities professors are convinced they got where they are because of their hard work and adjuncts got where they are because of their lack of it, yet humanities professors rarely if ever apply the same thinking to income or to non-academic status.
* The unspoken fear underneath much of the status jockeying entails realizing that, even among the employed, much of the “research” being done either doesn’t matter or is just wrong.
That last one is important. To some extent humanists are destroying themselves and have been for decades. They’ve lost whatever ability they had to ask themselves, “Is this important?” and “Why should other people give a shit about it?” I don’t think I ever heard those discussions among academics, and I rarely if ever read them among the marginalized scribblers online. If you want to know whether going to grad school in the humanities is a good idea, start by reading the journals or books. Many are filled with garbage and the ongoing fascination with 19th and early 20th century economists and psychologists is bizarre. Humanists rarely even cite each other. The simplest way to learn about these problems is just to read the output.
People are talked out of their creative, interesting, and original ideas. People with those kinds of ideas get MFAs, or blog, or leave. The field has no space for such ideas, per Peter Thiel. At one point academia was growing fast enough that even humanities disciplines had space for heterodox thinkers, but since ~1975 that hasn’t been true.
The lessons of academic satires and Camille Paglia have been largely ignored. The cost to the individual who manages to get tenure is low but the cost to the field as a whole is high.
Within the field no one can say this and outside the field everyone is ignored. The equilibrium is not a good one.